The spiritual leader of the Rojava revolution in Syria, Abdullah ‘Apo’ Öcalan, remained isolated physically and intellectually in his Imrali island prison as Turkish tanks and F-16s demolished a canton in Northern Syria constituted on his own political teachings.
According to the Stockholm Centre for Freedom, Öcalan had his radio and television removed before the invasion. He has not had access to legal counsel since 2011 in spite of over 700 official requests by his lawyers, and the last outside visitor allowed to see him was his brother Mehmet back in 2016.
It is not clear how much he knows about the Turkish capture of Afrin, a canton in Syria which forms part of the Rojava: a libertarian socialist and multicultural movement based on Öcalan’s philosophy of Democratic Confederalism.
The Turkish news website Ahval claimed that a Turkish delegation travelled to Imrali in order to convince Öcalan to release a statement telling the Afrin resistance to lay down their arms and surrender. No such statement was released, and the YPG fought to defend the canton to the death.
A leading member of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Öcalan was sentenced to death after being captured in Kenya in 1999 but was not executed owing to Turkey’s suspension of capital punishment as part of a bid to join the EU. Since Turkey’s EU hopes largely dissolved his treatment has worsened considerably, and independent inspectors have declared that his imprisonment on the prison island of Imrali brazenly contravenes articles 3, 5 and 6 of the European Court of Human Rights.
The PKK’s war with the State of Turkey has claimed the lives of roughly 40,000 mostly-civilian Kurds and 8,000 Turkish soldiers since 1978. Öcalan has led the calls since to end the conflict, and has even abandoned claims to Turkish land to create a Kurdish State, instead merely demanding an end to what he sees as systemic discrimination against his people.
In 2013 Öcalan managed to negotiate a ceasefire with Erdogan from prison. This quickly evaporated when the Turkish army bombed PKK militants fighting against ISIS in Iraq. Since then, Kurdish rights have only been stripped back further by an emboldened and empowered Erdogan who feels he has no interest nor obligation to throw any bones to Kurdish reconciliation having consolidated absolute executive power over a nascent jingoistic Turkey. This ultimately culminated in the invasion and capture of the province of Afrin in March 2018, a move that was supported by most Turks.
Öcalan’s writings in prison have demanded a peaceful solution to the Kurdish struggle, vowing to set up a ‘Truth and Justice Commission’ to investigate crimes of both Kurds and Turks throughout the war. Abandoning the PKK’s orthodox Marxist state-socialist stance, Öcalan was inspired by the American anarchist Murray Bookchin to develop his theory of Democratic Confederalism: a decentralised socialist structure which incorporates directly democratic assemblies to implement the decisions of a local populace.
Rather than continuing a violent struggle against the Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian state apparatus, Öcalan contends that adopting a confederalist localised government would allow the Kurds democratic representation within the framework of these states. As he released in a statement on Kurdish New Year 2013:
‘Let guns be silenced and politics dominate… a new door is being opened from the process of armed conflict to democratization and democratic politics’.
Almost 5 million Rojavans subscribed to his vision for a progressive Middle-East. Sadly, that remarkable project has been robbed of a vital organ and faces an uncertain future.
Whatever happens, their icon will remain surrounded by the Sea of Marmara, and more meaningfully separated by a communications blockade which contravenes international law. Apo’s face adorning billboards, flags and shop windows throughout Syria, Iraq and Turkey will likely be the closest he gets to see his philosophy made into reality.